PREVIEW-History weighs heavy on World War Two anniversary

Mon Aug 31, 2009 11:09am EDT

Related Topics

* Russia and West trade blame for outbreak of war

* European leaders gather for commemoration on Tuesday

* Putin strikes conciliatory note



By Gareth Jones

WARSAW, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Arguments between Russia and the West about who shares responsibility with Hitler for the start of World War Two are casting a shadow over Tuesday's 70th anniversary commemorations in Poland.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's speech in the Polish port of Gdansk will be keenly scrutinised by Poles, Balts and others irked by what they see as Moscow's attempts to whitewash Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's role 70 years ago.

The usually tough-talking Putin struck a conciliatory tone in an article published in a Polish daily on Monday, saying: "The shadows of the past should not darken cooperation today and even more tomorrow between Russia and Poland."

But Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov also made clear his boss would not apologise for Moscow's actions in 1939.

"The aim of (Putin's) visit is to counteract any attempts to revise the history of World War Two," he told a news briefing. Russians are deeply proud of the role the Soviet Union played in crushing Nazi Germany during what they call the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-45, in which some 27 million Soviet citizens died and which ended with Soviet control of eastern Europe.

NON-AGGRESSION PACT

But Poles and Balts also remember how Stalin used a non-aggression pact clinched by his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Germany's Joachim von Ribbentrop in August 1939 to seize their lands and start mass deportations and executions.

Two weeks after Adolf Hitler launched his 'Blitzkrieg' against Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and Britain and France declared war on Germany, Soviet forces invaded eastern Poland.

Shortly afterwards they began the process of annexing the three tiny Baltic republics. Germany only invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

A poll published in Monday's Rzeczpospolita newspaper indicated that a majority of Poles believe Moscow shares equal responsibility with Berlin for the outbreak of World War Two.

In his article, published in Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily, Putin condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but noted that France and Britain had also tried to compromise with Hitler in 1938, acquiescing in the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and then failed to come to Poland's aid after declaring war on Germany.

Putin urged Poland to follow modern Germany's example in putting aside historical bitterness and building a strong economic and political partnership with Russia.

"I am sure that sooner or later Russian-Polish relations will reach the same high standard of true partnership (as Germany and Russia)... This is in the interests of our peoples and the whole of Europe."

Chancellor Angela Merkel will represent Germany at Tuesday's commemoration.

The Polish government has no wish to get embroiled in historical disputes with Russia, an increasingly important trade partner that provides the bulk of Poland's gas and oil needs.

"We have to keep cool heads and not allow ourselves to get drawn into a pointless sparring match," said Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who will hold bilateral talks with Putin in Gdansk.



POLISH ANGER

Others in Poland and elsewhere are less relaxed.

Polish media reacted angrily on Monday to claims made on an official Russian website at the weekend that Poland's foreign minister in 1939, Jozef Beck, was a Nazi German agent.

A Russian military academic also recently outraged Poles by suggesting Poland was to blame for the outbreak of war in 1939 because it had refused Germany's 'modest' demands, which included annexing the free city of Gdansk (Danzig in German).

Russia responded with fury when an arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a resolution in July -- drafted by Lithuania -- that blamed both fascism and Stalinism for the outbreak of World War Two.

Putin himself, a former KGB agent, has described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Adam Jasser of the Polish think-tank DemosEuropa said Russia must distance itself from aspects of its past.

"As long as Russia refuses to come clean on the deadly terror of Stalinism at home, the alliance with Hitler ... and finally the brutal subjugation of nations in its vicinity after the war, it will be building its national identity on a lie and remain constrained in its ability to modernise and move forward," he said.

"It would be of huge benefit to Russia and Europe if the next generation of Russian leaders chose to follow suit by unequivocally repudiating Stalinism in all its guises." (Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow and Gabriela Baczynska and Barbara Sladkowska in Warsaw; Editing by Kevin Liffey)



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